A gloriously sunny day greeted racegoers at Hackwood Park last Sunday and the track was in excellent condition, thanks to Clerk of the Course Bill Welling, fence builder Ken Freeman and their team of helpers. Six contests over fences were preceded by two charity events – a seven furlong pony race for children and a flat race over a full circuit of the course, which was a great spectacle with a field of ten ridden in full hunting dress and Lollipop prevailing over Geronimo by the shortest of short heads.
On to the racing proper, the meeting opened with the Gwynne Dental Restricted Race, run over two and a half miles. Favourite was Fred Hutsby's Superior Fire, bidding to make it two out of two following a winning debut at Cottenham. Hannah Watson always had the six-year-old Arcadio gelding in the first three before taking it up five out and staying on to win by a comfortable two and a half lengths from long-time leader Treacyswestcounty, with Anglingforcharlie a never-dangerous third.
Asked how he came by the horse, winning owner Ken Hutsby laughed as he told me "I bought him ten days ago from Fred, because the jockey and the assistant trainer (Fred's wife Caroline) told me to!" With Fred on duty at Ampton, it was left to Caroline Hutsby to explain that the horse was bought out of Charlie Longsdon's yard (where the Hutsbys are involved with prolific winner Kilfinichen Bay) and she deflected questions about where Superior Fire might go next. "I've no idea, I'm only the second string. You'll have to speak to the trainer," she said tongue-in-cheek. Ken admitted that Hunter Chases may be on the agenda, but not until next season and said of stable star Penmore Mill "We hope to go to Liverpool, but we'll have to see how many good Irish horses are running."
The Night Nannies Ladies Open was another race to go the way of the favourite, Lara Mahon scoring by an easy 30 lengths on Awesome George. The odds-on shot took up the running early on the second circuit and never looked in danger, scoring for the sixth time in his last seven stars, from Trueflyingcolours, with Bay To Go back in third.
Awesome George, who was instrumental in helping Lara to the Lady Novice Riders title last season, runs in the colours of Lara's father Gabe, but is co-owned by breeder Gwen Meacham. "I had his dam, Awesome Aunt, with Henrietta Knight," explained Gwen. "He was the first horse I bred and was in training with Alan King – he won at Cheltenham and Ascot but did a leg and fell out of love with the game." Lara understandably has a great affection for the horse. "Oh my God, he's as awesome as his name," she exclaimed. "We ummed and ahhed about running him but he's flying at the moment, he's in serious form."
David Maxwell, who rides Mendip Express in the Cheltenham Foxhunters this week, was hoping for an across the card double. He rode favourite Big Bang De Loire in the Jude Becher Open Maiden Race for four, five and six year olds, before travelling to Warwick (rumours suggested by helicopter, although I didn't spot one) to ride Out Now (who finished third). However, he was foiled by gamble of the day On Account, backed from 10/1 down to 3s. The Francesca Nimmo trained debutant was always travelling well and jumped into the lead three out, staying on to hold off the favourite by six lengths, with Holm Hill 15 lengths back in third.
"I've liked him from day one," confirmed Francesca of the imposing Scorpion four-year-old, who she owns along with father Chris and Alan Mobley. "We got him from Ireland and broke him in ourselves. He does things effortlessly, is a natural schooler and has always worked well." Asked whether he was involved in the punt, Chris admitted, "We went up and down the line (of bookies)." It was a first winner of the season for Francesca, who told me "Hopefully we've got a few more maidens to win with." On Account is unlikely to be adding to the stable tally though, as he is entered in the Cheltenham Sales this week. It was a second winner for the stable for jockey James Nixon, who joked "I'm second in line after Hugh Nugent (who was riding at Ampton) but hopefully I'm first in line now!" James, the reigning Welsh Borders novice champion, has now ridden three winners from his last four mounts and plans to stay amateur for the rest of the season, although after that "We'll see."
The Mens Open was sponsored by former jockey Anthony Ward-Thomas – who rode his last ever winner round Hackwood Park ten years ago – on behalf of his removals firm. For a long way, it looked like the spoils would go to Ballypatrick, who would have been Henrietta Knight's first winner between the flags for 27 years (!), but her ten year old could never get clear of the field after leading five out and was caught and passed at the last by Tin Pot Man, who won cosily by just over two lengths. Moscow Blaze never threatened back in third.
The ten-year-old ex-chaser is owned by Carol Sevenoaks, whose family had him under rules, and is trained by rider George Hiscock and his partner Charlotte Brown, who enthused "He's a little horse, under 16 hands, with the biggest heart. He goes on heavy ground and will stay all day long. He's won at two miles over hurdles and three miles three at Ffos Las and he loved the tight track and big fences here." Charlotte – who had her first ride in points last week – and George have five horses in training, including the promising Wyndcrest and the enigmatic Turtle Boys. Asked about plans for Tin Pot Man, she confessed, "I wouldn't mind the four-mile Hunter Chase at the Cheltenham evening meeting." It was an eighth career winner for George, who started out six years ago because "I always fancied doing it."
The fifth race, the Quilter Cheviot Club Members Race, was for veteran and novice riders, although as it turned out, none of the former took part. It turned into a procession for long odds-on Done A Runner, who moved to the head of affairs with a circuit to go and won by an official ten lengths (it looked further) from Driftwood Pride and Jetnova. It was a third consecutive easy victory for the ten-year-old in the hands of Jack Andrews – with four winners this year, the younger brother of Gina and Bridget must be in contention for the National Novice Riders title.
Winning owner and funeral director Toby Hunt came up with an interesting answer to my 'Where does the horse go now?' Inspired by Victoria Pendleton, he told me that he plans to embark on his own challenge. "It's called 'From Hearse to Horse'. I've never sat on a horse, but I'd like to ride him in my Hunt Members race next season." Not sure whether to take Toby seriously, I asked what he thought had brought about such good performances this year. "Every time he changes yards, he improves," was the answer, but there's a simple explanation to the switch from Alan Hill. "We moved to Luddington in the Brook and (trainer) Dale Peters is just a few miles up the road," Toby admitted.
The closing contest, the Vernon Hervey Open Maiden, was the fourth of the day to go the way of the favourite. Connies Height looked likely to give Toby Hunt and Dale Peters a quick double when moving smoothly in front after three out, but George Bingham on Mirs Choice always had the leader in his sights and jumped clear at the penultimate fence to come home ten lengths in front, with the newcomer – and first runner as a trainer for Jack Andrews – a promising third.
The win was a real family affair. Jointly owned by George Bingham (senior) and Sue Maxse – in whose colours the horse ran on Sunday – Mirs Choice is trained by Sue's daughter (and mother of the jockey) Sarah Bingham. "We bought her cheaply from Ireland six months ago," George senior said of the mare. "We had a tack mishap at Badbury Rings, then she was a nice fourth at Larkhill. She's a cracking little horse and jumped sweetly." It was a third career winner, and first of the season for George junior, who is currently at medical school at University College London. "I've been riding since I was 17 and was bred into it – both my parents were amateur riders," he smiled.